Coffen Pattle watched as the postman in his jaunty red jacket went whistling into the house next door, carrying a small, cylindrical package, the twin of which Coffen's butler had just handed to him. He returned to the breakfast table for another cup of coffee and opened the package, before ambling across the grass to the house next door to discuss it.
He found Lady deCoventry sitting on a striped sofa in her elegant saloon on Berkeley Square, frowning at a letter printed in black ink on fine vellum paper. The missive had come not folded but in a scroll, like an official proclamation. It was so elegant it belonged under glass. Coffen's scroll, already stained with coffee and smeared with jam, was no longer suitable for framing.
"I see you got one, too," he said, peering at Corinne from bright blue eyes.
He looked, as usual, as if he had just tumbled out of bed. His mud-colored hair was tousled. A sprigged waistcoat stretched taut over his stout upper body, and his blue jacket was rumpled.
"Yes, from Reggie," she replied. "I expect Luten got one as well."
Her fiance, the Marquess of Luten, lived directly across the street. The letter writer, Sir Reginald Prance, Bart., lived two houses up from him. The four together were known in London society as the Berkeley Brigade, a set of young Whig aristocrats who led the ton in matters of style.
"Did Prance invite you to Granmaison?" Coffen asked.
Prance, mourning a tragic love affair (his mistress had been murdered), had retired to his estate in east Sussex. His excuse was that he was recuperating from a bout of lingering melancholia, but the reason, they suspected, was a fit of pique. He did not approve of Corinne's decision to have a small, private wedding. He had assumed the arrangements for her wedding to Lord Luten would be left in his capable hands. After all, a marquess and a countess--even if she was a widow--deserved a lavish do.
"Yes," she replied, "and I must say I am tempted, but I doubt Luten would leave London at this time."
"You ain't seeing much of him these days. Where you ought to be going is on your honeymoon."
"We decided to wait until Prance is back before making any plans," she said. "Luten is very much involved with this maritime war with America. We have already lost some of our best cruisers. And with Napoleon in trouble in Moscow, the government wants to profit from the situation," she said vaguely. Luten was a member of the Whig shadow cabinet that kept an eye on the Tory ministry. "They keep him very busy at Whitehall."
Despite the exculpating words, Coffen noticed that she was nursing a fit of pique. He nodded at the familiar refrain and reverted to the matter at hand. "Granmaison is only thirty-five miles away. In Luten's rig and with a team of four, you would be there in half a day. Or if he took his curricle, a couple of hours. I'm going anyhow. I miss Prance. I hate him, but I miss him."
Corinne smiled fondly. This good-natured fellow was incapable of hating anyone. "You don't hate him."
"P'raps not. The thing is, he makes me feel worthless. He's too neat. He knows too much. Languages, art, books. He is always up to some new rig, tahrsome fellow." He glanced at his scroll. "What do you make of these hieroglyphics?"
Corinne frowned at the roll of vellum. "He says he has had a 'gorgeous notion,' and we must come at once to discuss it with him. I daresay this scroll and funny square printing are clues. The writing looks Japanese."
"If he's turned into a Hindoo, I'm through with him."
"It is the Indians who are Hindus, Coffen. The Japanese are ... er, Buddhists or some such thing."
"They ain't Christians in any case." Anyone else, in his view, was part devil.
"I doubt it's that. Reg is not religious."
The door knocker sounded in an imperious way that left little doubt as to the caller. "Luten," Coffen murmured.
Within half a minute, a tall, elegant gentleman appeared in the doorway. From his disdainful fingers dangled the familiar scroll. The inherited authority of generations could be read on his aristocratic face. Corinne could never quite believe that she had caught Luten. His jetty hair, casually brushed forward a la Titus, grew in a widow's peak. Finely drawn eyebrows arched over a pair of smoky gray eyes. A strong nose and square jaw lent authority to his lean face. Over his broad shoulders a blue jacket of Bath cloth sat like a second skin. The immaculate cravat at his throat was arranged with simple elegance.
His sharp eyes made a quick tour of his fiancee. As he advanced toward her, his sardonic expression softened to a spontaneous smile. She sat in a shaft of sunlight that lent radiance to her beauty. The contrast of her pale, finely carved face and raven-black hair suggested a cameo, to which a pair of dancing green eyes lent vivacity. Her tall figure was not on display, but he was familiar with every inch of it. He knew it by heart.
He glided forward and placed a light kiss on her uplifted cheek. "Ravissante, as usual," he said in a burred drawl that did not quite conceal his infatuation. He nodded at Coffen and said to them both, "I see Prance has summoned you as well."
"Yes, we have been discussing the visit," Corinne replied, trying to read his intention.
A sharp frown drew Luten's eyebrows together. "He can't expect us to go darting off into the wilds for one of his absurd fancies. He might at least have given us a hint as to the nature of this 'gorgeous notion.' Is it fish, flesh, or fowl?"
Coffen's eyes glowed with interest. "You figure it's food?"
"No. Prance don't eat," he said categorically.
"He nibbles a bit of bread," Coffen pointed out. "Mean to say, he's thin as a chicken bone, but even Prance has to eat something or he'd die."
"Prance does not live by bread alone, unfortunately," Luten said. "He requires a deal of attention as well."
"We were just saying how much we missed him," Corinne said. "Coffen is going."
"I thought I would dart down," Coffen said. "It ain't far. Only three hours as the crow flies." Without Prance to correct this assault on logic, Coffen escaped uncorrected.
Corinne looked hopefully at Luten. His bright eyes regarded her blandly. They revealed none of the jealousy he felt. Prance had always had a tendre for Corinne. Was this some scheme to lure her away from him? "And you? Are you going?" he asked.
"I would like to. London is quiet at this time of year."
"There is Lady Jersey's ball this week," he said, hoping to entice her to stay, without actually asking her to. There was a peculiar reluctance on both their parts to admit their infatuation. Three years before, Corinne had rejected his offer of marriage. She had been young, just recovering from the death of her husband, and had not realized Luten's eligibility. Luten had taken a pique over the refusal. On her part, she could not quite believe she had finally brought him to the sticking point again.
"It will be only a small do, in autumn."
"Sussex will be blustery this time of year, with winter coming on," he mentioned.
"It is only early October! And a particularly fine autumn, too, if you ever got your nose out the door to enjoy it."
"Prance gets the ocean breeze at Granmaison."
"It is miles from the ocean!" Her shoulders drooped. "You aren't coming," she said, trying to conceal her annoyance.
"I couldn't possibly get away before the weekend." As it was only Monday, this meant the better part of a week away from each other if she went. "But if you wish to go, don't let me stop you," he added with an air of indifference. He even went on to add, "It will leave me free to work without interference."
"I didn't realize I was interfering, as I seldom see you before ten o'clock at night!" she shot back.
"Then you might as well come with me," Coffen said to Corinne, oblivious of Luten's damping scowl. "Glad for the company. We'll leave Luten here to look after England. Carry on the good work, Luten."
She looked at Luten. She would have stayed in London had he asked her. He glanced out the window, with still that air of indifference his pride demanded. "Will you come on the weekend?" she asked.
There were grave matters afoot at Whitehall. The French general Malet was conspiring to end the war and reinstate Louis XVIII while Bonaparte was away in Russia, but he dare not breathe a word of this to mere unparliamentary mortals.
"I'll try to get away early and go down Friday. We cannot let Mouldy and Company run amok." Mouldy and Company was the Whigs' derogatory name for the reigning Tories. "When will you leave?" he asked.
"Today," Coffen said. "We could get away right after lunch, eh, Corinne?"
Again Corinne looked at Luten. He glanced at his fingers, then brushed his nails against his jacket. "I can be ready by then," she said to Coffen.
"You'll take Mrs. Ballard with you?" Luten asked, rather imperiously. It was more a command than a question. He looked at her then, with an angry scowl growing on his brow. Mrs. Ballard was Corinne's companion. He disliked to see his fiancee visiting Prance unchaperoned.
"If she cares to come. Prance's aunt Phoebe is there, so it is not really necessary."
Luten placed very little reliance on Prance's unconventional aunt Phoebe. "Mrs. Ballard would enjoy the little holiday," he said, sensing her rising anger.
"I'll invite her, but she won't want to miss her whist game tomorrow evening. It is the highlight of her week."
"I don't see why you must oblige Prance by catering to his whim. He is only sulking." He had a lowering feeling he was sulking himself and vowed to say no more.
He drew out his watch. Ten-thirty already! He had a meeting with his party's leaders, Grey and Grenville, at eleven. He glanced at Coffen, hoping he would leave and give him a moment's privacy with Corinne to say good-bye or talk her into staying in London. He was angry with her for going, and also felt guilty for not going with her, but would feel worse if he forsook his colleagues in the House. Coffen sat on, scratching at a spot of egg yolk on his trousers.
"I might as well go," she snapped. "There is nothing to do here."
"Well, if you consider a ball nothing. I shall give your regards to Lady Jersey."
"Oh, you will be going without me?"
"Do you object? I shall be here all alone."
"Of course not. Do as you like," she said with a toss of her curls. "I am sure Prance will have some entertainment planned," she added, to retaliate.
Her green eyes flashed angrily. Luten's gray eyes had turned to ice. "No doubt. Then I shall see you on Friday if I can get away." He hesitated a moment, then leaned forward and dropped a cool kiss on her fevered cheek and left.
Coffen rose and stretched. "I'll be getting on home then. About lunch--"
"Do join me. We'll have a bite early and get away by twelve." Before she changed her mind and stayed at home.
Coffen agreed eagerly. It was no secret that his cook could not cook. His coachman could not read a map, and his valet was as unkempt as his master. Coffen had a knack for choosing poor servants, whose minima! abilities deteriorated even further under his lax hand.
Corinne went abovestairs and Mrs. Ballard came to help her pack. A mousy little ecclesiastical widow, Mrs. Ballard discussed at length whether she ought to go with her mistress, before being talked out of it. She didn't want to go and Corinne didn't want her to, but the show of mutual dependence had to be kept up. The lady was the late Lord deCoventry's cousin.
"Who will help you dress, milady, if I don't go?"
"I managed to dress myself for the first seventeen years of my life. And Reggie has plenty of servants. I shall manage."
Corinne had grown up in genteel poverty in Ireland. It was there that her first husband, Lord deCoventry, three times her age, had discovered her and bought her from her papa for five thousand pounds. The four years of their marriage had been unfruitful but otherwise satisfactory. The three years since his death, however, had been more enjoyable for the young widow.
"Well, if you're sure you don't need me. I did want to take care of the linen this afternoon. Will you be wanting to pack your green peau de soie?"
"Yes, and the bronze taffeta. Reggie's dinners are strictly formal."
"I'll put paper between the skirts to lessen the wrinkles."
Coffen's packing was less complicated. His valet, Raven, tossed half a dozen shirts and a nightgown into a small trunk, threw in stockings and smallclothes, and folded his evening suit carelessly on top. He forgot to pack evening slippers.
Within the hour, Coffen was back at Corinne's for luncheon.
"I've spent the last hour going over the map to Prance's place with Fitz, but there's no relying on him," he said. "We must keep our eyes open to see he gets us there safe and sound. We continue on the main road as far as Lewes, but not quite. Just t'other side of Heath. At least it's broad daylight. No need to hide our blunt and jewels, eh? Not much chance of the highwaymen getting at us."
This was always a problem for Coffen. He was frequently attacked. Mrs. Ballard tsked and ate her soup. Corinne toyed with her food. She hardly knew whether she was angry with Luten or herself. She only knew that Luten would be at Lady Jersey's ball without her. The ladies would be throwing their bonnets at him. And in his present mood, he might just decide to catch one of those bonnets.
Shortly after noon Coffen's carriage and team of four clattered out of London, with two small trunks stored on top. Fitz, his coachman, made only two wrong turns, and in both cases, Coffen caught him. No highwayman came to molest them as they traveled the miles through the autumnal countryside, past harvested meadows where cows grazed on the stubble. Fields of grayish sheep dotted the hillsides. An occasional orchard varied the landscape. The trees were fading to yellow and brown. It was an overcast day. Between the lackluster view and the absence of Luten, Corinne was in a sad mood.
Coffen sensed it, and tried to cheer her up by conjecturing what Prance's surprise could be. "Not writing another dashed poem, I hope. His Rondeaux were wretched. I never could finish them, though I read most of some of them."
"The vellum paper and black ink are a clue. Perhaps he's having a Japanese-style party. That would be different."
"We won't have to wear long dressing gowns, will we? I wager Raven didn't pack mine."
"Certainly we will. Reg does not do things by halves."
"They don't eat with them twigs like the Chinamen, I hope?"
She shrugged. "Reggie will know."
"Aye, he will. He knows everything and insists on telling a fellow, no matter how often you yawn. He's as bad as a schoolmaster, only worse. I wish I knew as much about one single subject as he knows about them all. Ah, there is Granmaison! At least he hasn't turned it into a Hindoo temple."
In the distance, an arrangement of turrets and peaks suggesting an ancient castle pierced the skyline, like an illustration from a book of fairy tales. This fantastic building seemed the proper abode for Sir Reginald Prance.